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SteveBy Steve Williams, Executive Director

One of the things I’ve always loved about being a teacher is the beginning of each new school year — returning to the building to meet students and colleagues, new and old, reorganizing my classroom (or moving into a new one), putting up fresh posters on the wall or looking forward to teaching a new novel with an eager crew of new students. Sometimes, as was the case here at WSD ten years ago, we began not only with a brand new building still smelling of concrete and wood, fresh paint, and new carpet, but an entirely new faculty, school leadership, and group of colleagues, many of whom I’d never met before. But usually the buildings were old and the routines and people seemed established and ordered and only I was new. Even as a student, regardless of the building or the place, my school years have begun with hope, ambitious plans, and brimming with possibility. I’ve had fifty of these “first days” now. Let me share just a few of them with you.

Sporting a new pair of bright green knee-shorts and a bleached-white button-down shirt and sandals, I started my first “first day” in Tonga, a small island in the middle of the South Pacific. Trotting across the campus compound where we lived, I discovered a bright Kindergarten classroom, loaded with wooden blocks and wooden puzzles, pint-sized wooden chairs at matching tables, books–piles of books–waiting to be read, and warm fuzzy rugs made, exclusively it seemed, for napping. Learning in those days mostly meant playing games and drinking milk through a straw. When we weren’t learning to count to ten, we copied letters and colored things — elephants, dinosaurs, and fields full of flowers. Of course, we attended only in the morning and then spent the afternoons — a wild band of unattended children — exploring the island neighborhood, half-dressed and always on the run. Kindergarten introduced me to school as a place where fun happened, but always, it seemed, on a schedule.

SteveTwo years later I began second grade at Seven Hills Elementary School in Brisbane, Australia. There, on the other side of the planet, but still in a required uniform — this time a pair of gray pants or shorts (I always chose shorts), black shoes and socks, and a green-collared shirt with a yellow and black repeating arrow logo over the left pocket. Except for my friend Lance. Lance, from what I could tell, was a motherless child and thus got to choose (lucky) his own clothes each morning. He usually came to school dressed for a rugby match that he had either just played in or was headed to after school. Oversized rugby jersey, torn and dirty shorts, and always barefoot — barefoot! Lance never wore shoes, while I was forced into some black leather foot crampers all day long. He was living the dream. Sure the occasional thorn or piece of glass would find its way in between the calluses of his leathery feet, but he never seemed to mind these minor inconveniences much. Lance was a tough kid. With a couple of teeth missing and hair that went every which way, he was everything I wasn’t. I loved Lance. He was second-grade cool. When we weren’t in class, we spent our recess time chasing lizards larger than we were in the bush below the school. Lance reminded me that sometimes you sang about boa constrictors swallowing you, and sometimes you went out looking for them.

Then I started third grade twice. The school year in Australia overlapped the school year in the United States, so when my family returned to the U.S. and I started school in Afton, Wyoming, I had already completed half a year of third grade in Australia. Rather than tossing me into fourth grade, my parents, prudently, decided to give me another shot at third grade. Two years of living and schooling in Australia had left me with a healthy Australian accent and all the verses of “Waltzing Matilda” memorized, but I was weak in multiplication and long division.

SteveAn elk horn arch (“The World’s Largest”) spanning main street and a rodeo cowboy on its license plate, Afton, Wyoming was a town for real men. Luckily I’d ridden a horse once, so I was sure I’d fit right in. I remember telling my mother I needed a pair of cowboy boots for the first day of school (“That’s what they wear in these parts,” I drawled). Sauntering into class on the first day of third grade, jeans tucked into a shiny new pair of the cheapest pair of boots in town, I wouldn’t have been less surprising if I’d sidled up to the desk of my third grade teacher, Mr. Bruce, and ordered a sarsaparilla.

Boots, apparently, were out of fashion that year. Everyone was wearing sneakers, and with good reason. At lunch, I found myself in the middle of the most terrifying version of Sharks and Minnows I’d ever encountered. With the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders waiting hungrily in the middle of the field, we HAD TO RUN FAST through the center of this mob to safety on the other side without being tackled by one of these giants. Those boots might be great for roping and riding, but they proved to be worthless in a game that has since been banned on most playgrounds in the civilized world. After being thrown (tossed, beaten, slammed) to the ground repeatedly by several sixth graders (who — I kid you not — were already shaving), I hobbled home and pleaded with my mother for a pair of sneakers. Otherwise, I argued, I wouldn’t survive school the next day. The boots I tucked away in the back of the closet for formal events.

SteveWhen I was 12, I started school in Richmond, Utah. A cow town near Napoleon Dynamite’s home in Preston, Idaho. Drawing students from all over northern Cache Valley and with a total population of nearly 1,000 students, North Cache Junior High was by far the largest school I had ever attended up to that point in my life, and I remember feeling very frightened on the first day. I had never ridden a school bus before, and the bus on that first morning was packed with junior high kids who all seemed bigger and louder than I was. Getting on that bus was kind of like walking into the middle of a riot, and even though the driver — his name was Arnie Amos — was stern, he seemed to have no sway with the mob in back. He’d yell at them to quiet down and they’d just shout back, “Hey Arnie, grind us a pound!!” (This taunt referred to the way Arnie would shift the gears on the bus, which always produced a tooth-jarring grind between 2nd and 3rd gears). The school building was ancient, nearly 75 years old when I walked through its doors, and smelled like stale potatoes. It was here I would learn about the pleasures and anguish of love and friendship, how to play the saxophone, the humiliations of the rope climb and the requirement to shower after every PE class, and the secret joys of discovering a favorite author (thank you, Mark Twain). I never imagined during those tumultuous and confusing years that I would become a Middle School teacher myself.

So here we are in 2020, beginning the school year in the middle of a strange pandemic. And again, things feel new and exciting, even for an old(ish) man like me. I wonder what the year will be like and I sometimes still worry about things I don’t understand or can’t control. But one thing that remains constant for me is the anticipation of an adventure on the horizon — one that we will share and that we will tell our children and grandchildren about. I invite you to join me in this adventure and to bring your hope, your enthusiasm, and your generosity as we step confidently into the “first day” of school 2020 at Weilenmann School of Discovery.